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Prelude to the Afternoon of a French Edgelord: Claude Debussy as Identitarian Artist and Innovator of Impressionism – and Jazz?

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is remembered for some of the most sumptuous, instantly recognizable compositions in the western canon, and is associated particularly with programmatic music and impressionism. However, “perplexing for the musicologist,” writes Simon Trezise, “were the many contradictions in his character, which ranged from rebellious and anti-establishment to snooty, racist, and exclusive”[1]. An indication of the proud Frenchman’s attitudes toward alien races may be had from this passage of Robert Orledge’s essay “Debussy the Man”:

It is doubtful if Debussy’s views were any more sexist or racist than the rest of his politically incorrect generation. Both aspects reached their nadir in his strained relations with the exotic dancer Maud Allan, who had commissioned the ballet Khamma in 1910 and persisted with her irrational demands for Debussy to make the score he had sent her both twice as long and scored for half as many players. Apart from wanting to give “la ‘Girl’ anglaise … a good spanking”, he complained to [publisher Auguste] Durand that she had supplied him with “a scenario so boring that a Negro could have done better”. And when he had not heard from her for a while in 1913, he imagined that “the undulating Miss Allan was dancing for some Negro race in darkest West Africa”! As always, Debussy’s letters to his long-suffering publisher contain his frankest and most personal admissions, many of which (as above) Durand wisely chose to suppress when he published them in 1927.[2]

Alternately reported to have been neutral [3] in the Dreyfus Affair, “pro-Dreyfus”[4], or to have “allied himself in conversation with the Nationalists who condemned Dreyfus”[5], it is significant that, in the wake of this internationally divisive scandal, Debussy became more critical of the music of Edvard Grieg, who, in Debussy’s words, “showed such a lack of sympathy for France at the time of the Dreyfus Affair.”[6]

Ernest Bloch

Ernest Bloch

Debussy was, it would seem – like any number of prominent men of his day – a variety of anti-Semite. He made more than one disparaging remark about the Jewish composer Ernest Bloch, whom he characterized as “this cross between a commercial traveler and a dangerous lunatic”, in his letters to associate Robert Godet [7]. Israeli musicologist Assaf Shelleg compares Debussy with well-known opponent of Jewish influences in European music Richard Wagner in quoting the Frenchman’s following reservations about the state of French culture in his age:

We have been unfaithful to the musical traditions of our own musical race for more than a century and a half. … We have obscured the roots of our music’s family tree: the careless observer has seen only parasitic creepers, and our indulgence towards the naturalized has been limitless. In fact, since Rameau we have had no purely French tradition. His death severed the thread, Ariadne’s thread, that guided us through the labyrinth of the past. Since then, we have failed to cultivate our garden, but on the other hand we have given a warm welcome to any foreign salesmen who cared to come our way. We listened to their patter and bought their worthless wares. … We adopted ways of writing that were quite contrary to our own nature, and excess of language far from compatible with our own ways of thinking. We tolerated overblown orchestras, torturous forms, cheap luxury and clashing colors, and we were about to give the seal of approval to even more suspect naturalizations when the sounds of gunfire put a sudden stop to it all. …[8]

Debussy biographer David J. Code writes disapprovingly of the composer’s pronounced nativism during the Great War:

Within a couple of weeks a more distasteful note typical of the mental reflexes so often triggered in wartime crept in. Using a racist term of abuse – métèques – best translated as “dagoes” or “wogs”, Debussy wrote approvingly to Durand about the government’s evacuation and internment of foreigners: “Since they cleansed Paris of all its métèques, whether by shooting them or by throwing them out, it has immediately become a charming place. And truly one only encounters a minimum of ugly mugs!”[9]

Far from being a merely crotchety, unimaginative conservative, however, the composer who famously stated that “works of art make rules [but that] rules do not make works of art” was not at all above incorporating elements of the exotic into his eclectic and individual Gallicism of expression – tossing castanets, for instance, into his Iberia (1907). More surprising given his disdain for “parasitic creepers”, “métèques”, and “suspect naturalizations”, was Debussy’s use of such seemingly low genres as the American “cakewalk”, a ragtime “dance parody in which black slaves would mimic the fancy mannerisms of their owners, with the best being awarded a cake”.

One blogger even essays to detail the highly contestable “story of how Debussy created jazz”, some of the arguments going as follows:

We all know Debussy as the genius behind musical Impressionism (though he loathed that particular tag), with its foggy musical imagery, but his influence on jazz and his relationship with its precursors are less well known. […]

As a definable musical genre jazz was born in around 1917 just before Debussy’s death. In essence it’s a musical language that emerged from west African dance music – with its syncopated rhythms [– and combined with] European popular music of the early 1900s, amongst other things.

One of its precursors was ragtime, so-called for its ragged, syncopated rhythms, was invented by Ernest Hogan in the late 19th century and fused African dance music with the marches of John Philip Sousa. […]

For a decade, from around 1896, America danced the cakewalk. And exported it. Black performers, crossed the Atlantic and introduced the cakewalk to high society in London and Paris. […]

Debussy came across ragtime (probably in around 1900) and was the first classical composer to incorporate it in his music, in the Golliwogg’s Cakewalk (1906-1908), which was written for his daughter, Claude-Emma, also called Chou Chou.

The Golliwogg’s Cakewalk is, at one level, a straightforward representation of a golliwog doll (such as the one owned by Chou Chou) clumsily doing an exaggerated dance routine. But Debussy adds a bit of spice by cleverly parodying the theme from the Prelude to Wagner’s opera, Tristan and Isolde.

As tensions in Europe emerge before World War I, Debussy is sneering at the stuffy, overbearing Romanticism of Richard Wagner and German culture more broadly. […]

Debussy repeated the success of the Cake Walk in 1909 with Le Petit Negre and, in 1910, in his piano caricature, General Lavine – Eccentric (from his second book of Preludes) and the Minstrels from his first book of Preludes (which also incorporates fragments of negro spiritual). […]

Ragtime has a “blue” tinge to it – and this comes across in these piano works, but it isn’t just used in Debussy’s pastiche piano works. Check the 3rd movement of La Mer, where Debussy anticipates jazz all over the place. […]

Debussy’s impressionistic idiom was to have a profound influence on the development of jazz, long after he was dead.

Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt

In the same year Debussy published his second book of Preludes, Jean-Baptiste “Django” Reinhardt was born. Reinhardt was brought up in a gypsy settlement just outside Paris and he is credited with inventing “gypsy jazz”, which combines a chromatic, moody flavour with swing. Much of the repertoire is in minor keys or modal.

In 1940, Reinhardt recoded a piece called “Nuages” (“Clouds”) which is regarded as the zenith of gypsy jazz. Nuages is also a direct nod to Debussy who wrote an orchestral piece of the same name. Rheinhardt builds on Debussy’s extensive use of whole tone scales and modal harmonies to create a moody, dark atmosphere. […]

Modern jazz (or bebop) was based on a much more streamlined style and modern jazz musicians began to affiliate themselves with classical music. Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk embraced dissonance and ambiguous chord structures, building out of earlier strains adopted by Renhardt and the like.

Miles Davis and the classically trained pianist, Bill Evans were part of this trend form the 1940s.

Just as Debussy had developed a unique French style of musical impressionism as a reaction to heavy-handed German Romanticism, partly by returning to pre-Romantic modal harmonies, Davis wanted to strip back jazz to it essentials.

To his modal techniques, Evans added oblique harmonies based on Debussyian whole tone scales, the extensive use of 6th and 9th chords and the elimination of functional harmony.

This is Debussy’s bequest to jazz.

The foregoing in no way makes the case for Claude Debussy as some pioneering wigger; rather, it is evidence of his complexity as an artist and a multifaceted personality. Debussy’s identitarianism was proud, but not narrow or stuffy, and not above appropriating what he found useful in the further glorification of his people.

Honor this European genius and enjoy Debussy tonight – perhaps even this afternoon.

Rainer Chlodwig von Kook

Endnotes

1. Trezise, Simon. “Introduction”, in The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 2.
2. Orledge, Robert. “Debussy the Man”, in The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 13.
3. Antokoletz, Elliott. Musical Symbolism in the Operas of Debussy and Bartok: Trauma, Gender, and the Unfolding of the Unconscious. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 311.
4. Jensen, Eric Frederick. Debussy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 91.
5. Holmes, Paul. Debussy. New York, NY: Omnibus Press, 2010.
6. Probert, Simon. “Norwegian Pride: The Music of Edvard Grieg”. Piano Lessons. http://www.piano-lessons.net/news_item.php?id=92
7. Shelleg, Assaf. Jewish Contiguities and the Soundtrack of Israeli History. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 29.
8. Ibid., p. 30.
9. Code, David J. Claude Debussy. London: Reaktion Books, 2010, p. 168.

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About icareviews

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16 comments on “Prelude to the Afternoon of a French Edgelord: Claude Debussy as Identitarian Artist and Innovator of Impressionism – and Jazz?

  1. icareviews
    October 21, 2015

    Reblogged this on icareviews.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Prelude to the Afternoon of a French Edgelord: Claude Debussy as Identitarian Artist and Innovator of Impressionism – and Jazz? #culturalappropriation #racism #hipsterracism #privilege | Hipster Racist

  3. Hipster Racist
    October 22, 2015

    The one thing I remember from high school music class is that Debussy was the Father of Jazz.

    Oh wait, was that racist?

    Liked by 1 person

    • icareviews
      October 22, 2015

      He may be the “Father of Jazz” in the sense that the Velvet Underground are recognized as progenitors of punk. They didn’t really invent it or anything, but punks heard their records and were influenced, so they’re in the lineage somewhere and deserve a nod.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. icareviews
    October 22, 2015

    Here’s a fun picture of Maud Allan, the dancer referenced above:

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hipster Racist
    October 22, 2015

    This quote is interesting:

    We have been unfaithful to the musical traditions of our own musical race for more than a century and a half. We have obscured the roots of our music s family tree: the careless observer has seen only parasitic creepers, and our indulgence towards the naturalized has been limitless. In fact, since Rameau we have had no purely French tradition. His death severed the thread, Ariadne s thread, that guided us through the labyrinth of the past. Since then, we have failed to cultivate our garden, but on the other hand we have given a warm welcome to any foreign salesmen who cared to come our way. We listened to their patter and bought their worthless wares. We adopted ways of writing that were quite contrary to our own nature, and excess of language far from compatible with our own ways of thinking. We tolerated overblown orchestras, torturous forms, cheap luxury and clashing colors, and we were about to give the seal of approval to even more suspect naturalizations when the sounds of gunfire put a sudden stop to it all.

    He’s complaining about too many foreign influences and endorses a form of “traditionalism.” The idea being that European people have an organic musical tradition, directly connecting the present with the past. The “garden” analogy is interesting too; foreign influences can be thought of as an invasive species.

    When you discuss culture, things tend to be a bit woo-woo and hard to pin down, but think of a modern analogy (Being someone of solidly middle class tastes, I’m more comfortable discussing pop.)

    White Americans have a long and rich folk music tradition. Rock and roll may have had some Black influences, but it was a very White music. The Black music that influenced rock and roll was itself very influenced by Appalachian folk music.

    Now, it’s kind of true that the uber-white Kraftwerk invented the music style of hip-hop and Blacks merely added the vocals. But Generation Y-ers who grew up on Eminem have essentially lost any real organic connection to the White folk music of the past, musically and lyrically.

    I’ve said it before, in my era “grunge” was the next big thing, and the entire “alternative scene” may as well have been called the “white alternative music scene.” At a time when Black musicians like Michael and Janet Jackson, Prince, and R&B acts dominated popular music, you had a bunch of white guys creating an “alternative” that “just happened” to be practically void of Black influences. White guys playing guitar rock without the solos, the beat completely lacking in the “swing” that was omnipresent in Black music for decades.

    I attended the first Lollapalooza. It was whiter than a FOX New Tea Party rally, and just like a Tea Party, there were more blacks on the stage than in the audience (from what I can tell, one, the singer of the band Living Colour, which was a very White-presenting Black guy that sang really White sounding music.)

    The term “hipster” has fallen out of fashion, but a lot of the kids these days are described as “scene” which is essentially the millennial word for “alternative.” And just look at mainstream pop music these days: the front page of youtube is dominated by Taylor Swift.

    It really doesn’t get any whiter than Taylor Swift.

    Like I said, discussing culture tends to woo-woo, but I do think there’s probably something important here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • icareviews
      October 23, 2015

      Kraftwerk and synthpop definitely influenced hip-hop, particularly the 80s electro stuff, but I’d credit older black artists like Louis Jordan and James Brown as the granddaddies of rap. I have an idea for a music article that I actually started to write months ago; but I just need to find the time to complete it.

      Like

  6. sonofeurope
    October 23, 2015

    I don’t know much about classical music even though I listen to it frequently. My tastes seem mostly confined to fugues and baroque compositions of the 18th century.
    Debussy seems a little too newfangled for my tastes.
    I used to be far more eclectic, but it seems that as we advance in age we settle down aesthetically as well as physically.

    Liked by 1 person

    • icareviews
      October 23, 2015

      I’ve got a ton of classical music but hardly ever listen to it. Most of the time I’m too busy to really enjoy it, and when I feel peaceful enough to do so, it’s usually late and it tends to lull me to sleep.

      Liked by 1 person

      • sonofeurope
        October 23, 2015

        Sometimes I have it on when I work because there are no words in it so it’s not very distracting or interuptive.

        Liked by 1 person

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